When a leader wants to improve their company culture, they instinctively turn to the experts and best practices. But there's a major issue with this tendency to default to what everyone else is doing: every company culture is different. What worked for one organization could, very well, cripple another.
The first step to making culture changes should be taking a long, hard look at what defines your organization. Company cultures arise in the same way as societal cultures. This means examining your company through the eyes of an anthropologist is the best way to ensure your culture thrives.
As a business leader, it's unlikely that you're familiar with how anthropologists research and examine cultures. To help you better understand your company culture, take the advice of the corporate anthropologist and author of On the Brink, Andi Simon.
1. Analyze company habits.
Culture is defined by behaviors. It reflects values as well as how they influence people's choices and day-to-day processes. However, most people don't think about their daily habits. As a result, leaders become blind to when a company culture has grown toxic.
"Company culture is typically held to be true and almost sacred as 'the way we do things here,'" Simon said. The trick is to uncover what that reveals about the company.
Watch how employees go about their daily routine and take notes. Focus on adjectives that describe their actions. Do they seem stressed or engaged?
Then, think about the connotations of each word you wrote down. This will show whether or not that aspect of your culture is a strength or weakness. For instance, if many employees seem to rush through tasks, it can show that the company is prioritizing working quickly over being thorough.
2. Be present and aware.
How people interact is a big part of company culture. Spending time with your employees in both formal and informal situations shows what the rules of the organization are. It reveals what traits are respected and valued by the team.
Simon points out that it's important for leaders to observe a wide variety of interactions. "We listen in and participate in lunchroom conversations," she said. "We might even be asked to help do some of the work. We also like to listen in on interactions between customers and call center staff."
Pay attention to the extremes of workplace relationships. Which employees are praised and admired? Which ones are outsiders?
Consider the skills and qualities of the employees involved. If these traits don't align with the declared company values, then there are problems with the company culture.
3. Tune in to employees' stories.
When a company culture has started to turn toxic, often, people cling to a happier story. They describe things in a way that reflects what leaders would like to hear. This ends up distracting you from inconsistencies within the organization.
"Stories capture the essence of a culture," Simon said. "But to be clear, you cannot simply ask people what they are doing or why."
Instead, Simon suggests that after you ask an employee to tell you about what they do, record them doing it. This will show you and the employee where their actions don't align with their stories.
However, don't think of this exercise as a way to catch employees in a lie. The purpose is to uncover how the story the team tells itself is different from reality. Only by seeing the disconnect, can you begin to make effective changes.
4. Put together the whole picture.
Since so many factors contribute to culture, it's important to move from the small details to the big picture. If you make quick judgments after seeing an out-of-context red flag, it can make the situation even worse.
Instead, wait until you have all the data and look for overarching trends. Which values and behaviors were observed in different situations? Think about what this says about the company.
Consider the consequences if customers found out about the real company culture and values. If there's a high probability they would take their business elsewhere, it's time to make changes.
Start by thinking what behaviors would better reflect your vision for your organization. Then, communicate to employees how these changes will be beneficial to everyone.
People are usually resistant to change, so you have to get your entire team invested in the new way of doing things. Focus on how they will be recognized or rewarded for getting onboard with the new company culture.